A WELL KNOWN figure on the traditional music scene of the Scottish Border country, Liz Marroni is a musician and activist whose engagement ranges from playing in and organising ceilidh bands for both adults and children, helping run the highly successful Border Gaitherin in Coldstream as well as – when she can find the time – playing in numerous instrumental sessions in the area.
Based in Kelso, Liz is a former primary school teacher who worked with the Scottish Borders Council Education Curriculum Development department. Currently retired, she now devotes more time to music, not least as musical co-ordinator of the Small Hall Band, which was nominated as Community Project of the Year in the 2015 MG Alba Scots Trad Awards, and which, during its 21-year history, has seen youthful Border musicians playing in locations as diverse as London’s Millennium Dome and Unst Village Hall in Shetland, and members going on to become acclaimed professional musicians.
Liz, who plays guitar, mandolin, banjo and piano, is also a member of an adult four-piece Ceildh Band, which plays at dances, weddings and other functions on both sides of the Border. She plays piano with the Border Shetland Fiddlers, is a member of the Edinburgh Guitar and Mandolin Orchestra, and with her husband Martin is a lynchpin of traditional music in the Kelso area as well as the cross-genre gatherings of the Kelso Music Makers.
In 2001, Liz and Martin were part of a group of parents already involved in the Small Hall Band who started the Border Gaitherin in Coldstream, inspired by the kind of traditional music festivals some of them had enjoyed in Ireland. The Border Gaitherin has continued every year since, an annual weekend based largely on song and instrumental workshops, of which Liz was co-ordinator until 2014.
Ask what motivates her and Liz explains, “I really enjoy playing and performing with other people. I get a huge buzz from playing socially in sessions with folk who are very high quality musicians and who enjoy the camaraderie. Playing for dancing, whether with the Small Hall Band or the adult Ceilidh Band, is also very rewarding, especially when people who have never ceilidh-danced before really enjoy it.”
Liz grew up in Edinburgh, then moved to Glasgow as a teenager, with a few years in Nottingham in between. Scottish music was enjoyed in the family, who were keen country dancers – her mother taught dancing – and they listened to traditional music on record, radio and TV. She took up piano at the age of nine, then added the guitar as a teenager. After she married Martin, his job took him to Shetland, where they lived for a year although weren’t involved in music-making there. Having moved to Kelso, she and Martin developed their skills on guitar, mandolin and flute and started playing locally.
As the family became increasingly involved in the Scottish traditional music scene, they also started spending summer holidays at music festivals in Clare and Sligo in the west of Ireland, playing with numerous Irish musicians, while as a family they once supported Dick Gaughan at Leeds Irish Week.
The Small Hall Band came about in 1995, formed by the Marronis and a few, like-minded, traditional music-playing families who were keen to provide what the local authority provision, by its very nature, could not provide; ie, the integral involvement of parents, the regular opportunities to perform and a strong social bonding element. With members ranging from seven to 17, the band is open to all youngsters interested in learning and playing traditional music, while parents continue to be strongly involved as musicians, organisers – and, naturally, transport facilitators. It is very much a labour of love on the organisers’ part – there are no fees or funding involved, with the band earning its keep through concerts and ceilidhs.
A generation or two on, SHB members have honed their performance skills in more than 100 different venues – many of them the eponymous small halls across south-east Scotland, Northumberland and beyond. Numerous former members have now become established professional musicians, including Innes Watson, Lori Watson, Carly Blain, Lilias Kinsman-Blake, Allan Hyslop, Andrew Waite, Freya Rae and Liz’s daughter Christina Marroni. The SHB even has an even younger offshoot – the Small Hall Bandits, led by an older member, Rebecca Rogers.
One of the original SHB youngsters, the now widely acclaimed Border fiddler and composer Lori Watson, paid tribute to “the volumes of energy and time Liz has given and still gives in supporting, encouraging, creating opportunities, leading, playing and making fun. It gave me years of learning, acceptance and very special memories, I can’t imagine my life without it and I try to pass it on in my own projects. Liz and the Small Hall Band parents created a space where we all felt a bit more brave, a bit more valued and where our music, trad music, mattered.”
Lori’s father, Sandy Watson, as one of that original bunch of concerned parents, states: “The Small Hall Band has had an immeasurable and positive effect on traditional/folk music in the region and in supporting young folk in music in general. The effect of and need for community-led groups in music and the arts is well-recognised, especially when local and national government resources are hard to get. These groups do not exist but for the dedication of folk like Liz Marroni.”
Seeing previous SHB members passing on the tradition to new generations of musicians is one of the things that gives Liz greatest satisfaction, “and seeing successive generations of SHB members achieving a fantastic level of musical ability and blossoming into really great young musicians.”
Highlights, she reckons, have included the band’s first ceilidh, at Hexham Youth Gaitherin back in 1999 – “They’ve headlined there every year since” – while others have included gigs at Edinburgh Fiddle festival the Isle of Muck and “really wowing the Shetlanders” in a memorable concert in Uyeasound Village Hall on the isle of Unst, Shetland.